History of emotional processing

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treeThe Concept of Emotional Processing : A brief historical note

The majority of people adapt to emotional disturbances and continue, or resume, their regular behaviour.  A significant minority however, fail to adapt successfully. One of the reasons for introducing the concept, in 1980, was the need to integrate these two large facts. What promotes adaptation to emotional disturbances, and what factors impede it?

The search for an explanation of the process of adaptation led to the examination of a range of abnormal experiences and behaviour (such as abnormal grief reactions, intrusive thoughts, the return of fear, obsessions) and ultimately produced an accommodation of these and other phenomena within a model of emotional processing. Emotional processing was defined as a “process whereby emotional disturbances are absorbed and decline to the extent that other behaviour and experience can proceed without disruption”. If a disturbance is not absorbed satisfactorily some signs become evident.  In order to avoid circularity, the technique of test-probes was introduced as a means of determining whether or not the processing had been completed. The persistence of intrusive signs of emotional disturbance include recurrent nightmares, obsessions, phobias, pressure of talk, re-experiencing, return of fears, inappropriate expressions of emotion as to time and place,  treatment failures/relapses.

A second reason for introducing the model arose from the growing evidence that at least three forms of behavioural treatment were effective in reducing psychological problems, notably phobias.  Groping for three equally plausible explanations for these effects seemed futile and in the interests of scientific parsimony it was proposed that the three forms of treatment (desensitization, flooding, modelling), and others to be developed, are successful to the degree that they promote emotional processing.

The model set out the variables that promote emotional processing, and those that impede it. The facilitators include controlled, predicted exposures to disturbing stimuli, and the factors that impede processing include sudden, unpredictable, intense exposures.  This part of the model was of course influenced by the prevailing behavioural treatments.

The main theoretical limitation of the original model, formulated as it was in the interval between the behavioural era and the infusion of cognitive concepts in the mid-1980’s, was the absence of cognitive influences on processing (see Rachman, 2001).  This weakness is under correction and it is now common to think of cognitive-emotional processing, incorporating the powerful and sometimes over-riding influence of cognitive variables.  Broadly, the person’s beliefs and appraisals definitely influence the process. Misinterpretations and erroneous beliefs can impede emotional processing, accurate appraisals and beliefs facilitate processing. In this way, the widespread adoption of cognitive-behaviour therapy can be construed as a means of facilitating emotional processing.

Rachman, S. (1980).  Emotional processing.  Behaviour Research & Therpay, 18, 51-60

Rachman,S. (2001). Emotional processing, with special reference to post-traumatic stress disorders.  International Review of Psychiatry,13,164-171.